This article explores the history of public access Unix systems, combining first-hand experience of contributors, historical accounts from related documentaries, and materials gathered from online archives. In exploring this history, one goal of this article is to provide overdue recognition to public access Unix systems by clearly defining them as a category distinct from bulletin board systems (BBSes), web forums, IRC channels, and other computer-based social venues. And through this history and definition, this article will make a broader argument, that Unix itself is a communications and social medium, distinct from printed text, television and the World Wide Web (WWW) -- and that it can provide a unique and powerful role in society because of the special way in which it shapes social interactions.
Finally, this article aims to encourage participation in and support for public access Unix systems, partly by brainstorming on what the next generation of systems might look like.
A central thesis of what follows is that public access Unix systems have played and continue to play an important role in fostering non-commercial online communities. And because of the way that Unix shapes social interactions among users, it is particularly relevant today. As concerns rise about the exploitative, addictive and shallow world of the commercial WWW, public access Unix systems offer a meaningful alternative in which people can be valued for their interactions with others rather than for the resale value of the information a site collects on them.